What does a professor do on spring break? She grades all the papers she assigned, of course. Last week was no exception, but I’m not complaining. The round of essays I read from introductory Communication and Journalism students in the course that I team teach with colleagues Kevin Sauter and Wendy Wyatt were, well, quite fascinating and even downright interesting.
The assignment is likely familiar to long-standing Scroll readers; I’ve written about it before. We ask students, using the honor system, to unplug from all digital technologies for four straight days. Yep, no cell phone, no texting, no iPod and no iPad. No computer and no radio. And, gasp, no Facebook, Pinterest or Twitter. Oh, the pain and agony! It’s heard around the room even as the assignment is introduced. Students then write about what they saw, felt and how much they wept (and, no surprise, how much more they slept).
While we have nearly 100 almost-Scroll-worthy essays about students’ sometimes nearly torturous and often unbearable experiences without “connection,” there were also those like freshmen Molly Behun’s. She not only learned she is much more of a techno “heavy user” than she thought, but also that because almost everyone else is, too, the “online deity” of Facebook and similar online attractions is holding us all captive, even if it only holds only one of us. How? Read Molly’s essay here:
Technology's Grasp on Our Lives
The “Unplugged” assignment was a very eye-opening experience for me. I considered myself a very moderate technology user before the assignment. Afterwards, however, I noticed I am virtually always plugged into some sort of literal or figurative outlet, whether it is my phone, the computer, the television, or the iPod. I learned that every person - even those who aren’t advanced technology users - is tethered to technology and even if one swears it off, since others are plugged in, we all are affected.
One thing I instantly noticed was the missing presence of weak ties. In the Economist article “Family Ties,” the author talks about how with new technology, it is possible for someone to be in contact with people close to them constantly during the day. Instead of making small talk when a person doesn’t know anyone around them, they just whip out their cell phones and send a message to a family member or a best friend. When I walked from class to class, it became painfully obvious that this was the case even at UST. Many people were walking with their heads down, texting and/or plugged into an iPod. By doing so, they nonverbally suggest to others, “I don’t want to be disturbed by strangers.” When I have access to technology, I am very much like this, too.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays when I have to walk to BEC, I usually plug in my iPod to pass the time, or I text my friends in choir. I must be sending the message, “I’m disinterested in talking to you!” I’m actually preventing myself from getting the opportunity to meet someone new. Ever since this assignment, whenever I make eye contact with someone while I am walking to class, I will smile or say hello. Even though I am determined to do this, it seems that everyone else on campus is avoiding it. They stare right ahead and purposely don’t look at others so as to avoid an “awkward” moment. … People who do want to make new, even weak, social ties will forever be at a disadvantage because the majority will still be plugged in. As a result, we will feel the loneliness that technology can create.
Another thing I noticed in my four days is that everyone is constantly “on” and doing something as suggested in the Economist article, “Our Nomadic Future.” During my four days unplugged I witnessed something quite shocking: my roommates returned from class and the first thing they did was log on to Facebook, then Twitter, then YouTube, then Pinterest. They always had something digital to do, something really not very important in the grand scheme of things. Even though I wasn’t plugged in, I still felt the pressure and presence of this online deity in the room. I also felt this way whenever the TV was on; it was holding me back. Even though I was not directly involved, I still felt the stress that accompanies being plugged in. Technology is holding me back: When I have it, it keeps me from accomplishing work and keeps me tethered closely to a small group of people; when I don’t but others do, it still confines me.
Technology, as I have discovered from this experiment, has evolved into a creature with a restrictive stranglehold on our society; if one person is held captive, we all are.
Note: Molly Behun is 18 years old, from Chaska and plans to double major in English (with a creative writing emphasis) and Communication and Journalism. She lives on campus in Murray Residence Hall (where, she happily notes, she is in “one giant room with three very different girls.”) She is a member of the St. Thomas Concert Choir and PULSE.